Education

Assault on reason

Print edition : April 12, 2019

At a protest by research scholars on January 20 at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru demanding a hike in fellowship stipend. Photo: Sudhakara Jain

A Delhi University Teachers’ Association protest outside the University Grants Commission office in New Delhi against the new funding formula, on March 12, 2018. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

The government has abolished the “no-detention” policy in schools. Regular examinations will be a feature in Classes 5 and 8 and pupils who fail will not be promoted to the next class. Photo: N. Bashkaran

With its policies and actions in the past five years, the BJP government has government has shaken the foundation of the education system’s content and form.

From encroaching upon the autonomy of educational institutions, and reinstating detentions in schools to rewriting school textbooks and palming off myth as science, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has shaken the foundation of the education system’s content and form. Almost all the policy decisions in the last five years in the field of education have indicated a decisive shift from the idea of education as an instrument of social progress and for the creation of an egalitarian society to one that is market-oriented The multipronged assault on educational institutions range from political attacks (labelling certain universities as anti-national) to eroding the autonomy of institutions and rewriting history to suit contemporary political compulsions.

One of the dominant features of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has been keep up an appearance of granting more autonomy to higher educational institutions, but a reality check shows that it has done exactly the opposite. For instance, the very power of the University Grants Commission (UGC) and its power to make regulations has been undermined. Consider this: One UGC notification directs universities to reduce the intake of MPhil and PhD students while another directs universities to increase the number of seats for courses so as to include the recently introduced reservation quota for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) among general category students. This in effect means the universities will have to increase the number of seats in the general category by almost 25 per cent to accommodate the EWS quota without impinging on other reservation categories. Neither is the money nor the infrastructure provided for the same, with the result that there is a reduction in the per capita expenditure on students.

Significantly, when reservation for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBC) was introduced in admissions to higher educational institutions in 2006 during the tenure of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, there was a 54 per cent increase in the total number of seats to ensure that the number of seats in the other reserved and general categories were not affected. No such corresponding increase in seats has been done or matching financial commitment provided for in the case of the EWS category. Most academicians wonder where the resources will come from.

Secondly, in its zeal to appease the EWS in the general category, more specifically with an eye on the upper caste vote in the context of the impending elections, the government forgot the need to amend the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Act, 2006, which was enacted to provide for reservation in admissionof students belonging to the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs), the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) and the Other Backward Classes (OBC) of citizens, to Central Educational Institutions(CEI). The Act was merely referred in the government memorandum in the context of the 10 per cent reservation for the EWS category. So now there is a new category of reservation which is not under any Act of Parliament. The lack of any financial provisioning also means that any additional expenditure will have to be met by increasing student fees.

UGC’s autonomy

Sometime in mid 2016, a new set of UGC regulations were announced through a gazette notification on Minimum Standards and Procedure for Award of MPhil and PhD degrees (UGC 2016), which higher educational institutions were obliged to adhere to. The regulations laid out in minute detail the pattern of entrance examinations, minimum eligibility criteria, pass marks at each stage, components of course work, eligibility conditions for supervisors, the maximum number of students per supervisor and the fixing of examiners, and so on.. Earlier, UGC regulations prescribed only minimum standards and left the rest to universities themselves.

The autonomy of educational institutions was eroded further when, on January 18, the Ministry of Human Resource Development issued the order to all CEIs such as Central universities; fully funded deemed universities; principals of all Delhi colleges, Banaras Hindu University colleges and constituent colleges of the University of Allahabad regarding “reservation for Economically Weaker Sections for admissions in Central Educational Institutions”. The government was clearly in a hurry to put in effect its memorandum issued a day earlier regarding the implementation of the TheConstitution(One Hundred and ThirdAmendment) Act, which sought to provide reservation in public employment and higher education for EWS. The letter directed the institutions to furnish a “seat matrix”, programme wise, along with possible financial requirements to the UGC.

A day earlier, on January 17, an HRD memorandum stipulated that every CEI would have to increase the number of seats over and above its annual permitted strength in each branch of study or faculty so that the number of seats available excluding those belonging to persons belonging to the EWS was not less than the number of seats available in each category. And on March 7, the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Teachers’ Cadre) Ordinance was issued, putting into effect the orders and the memorandum. However, there was no matching financial commitment made to provide for the extra infrastructural costs that would be incurred in the provisioning of the extra number of seats. Universities just had to comply and cease asking questions.

Historically, governments have always tended to push for unreasonable increases in the student-teacher ratio in order to minimise the expenditure on higher education. Here, however, was an odd situation where the government and the UGC actively sought the opposite—teachers were told that they had too many students.

The UGC 2016 Regulations put an effective curb on the freedom of universities to take decisions in accordance with their specific situations. The autonomy of Central universities came under further attack when they were coerced into signing tri-partite Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with the UGC which made provision of financial grants conditional. These MoUs had to incorporate every university’s commitments to “performance targets”, which would be monitored by the Ministry.

Reservation for teachers

The composition of S.C. and S.T. students and women in higher education has seen a major change over the past few decades. Women comprise 46 per cent of all university students, marking a marked improvement than in earlier years. The proportion of S.C. and S.T. students has also been going up. The overall Gross Enrolment Ratio in higher education was reported at around 25.8 per cent in 2017-18, according to the All India Survey on Higher Education. The composition of faculty in the universities, however, has lagged behind in terms of representation and has always had a narrow social base.

One reason for that is that reservation in teaching positions came in late. Whatever little was there was sought to be undone following an April 2017 Allahabad High Court order that introduced a new roster system for reservation in teaching posts. According to this, reservation in faculty posts in universities had to be applied department-wise and not by taking the total number of teaching positions across departments. Under the earlier system, the entire college or university was taken as one single unit across which reservation was divided.

The High Court ruling would have ensured fewer posts for the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the OBCs. The order was challenged in the Supreme Court, which upheld the High Court order.

In March 2018, the UGC declared a new policy mandating department-wise reservation for teaching posts in colleges and universities. After the teaching community rose in uproar against the new roster system, and various S.C., S.T. and OBC groups opposed the ruling, the government declared that it would take steps to reverse it and gave assurances that the issue would taken it up in the highest court of the land. The government woke up, presumably realising the damage this could do in the forthcoming elections. It could have filed a special leave petition in the Supreme Court in 2017 itself, but it did not do so.

In February 2019, the government appealed in the Supreme Court, but its plea was dismissed. On March 7, two years after the Allahabad High Court order, the government issued an ordinance promulgating the Central Education Institutions (Reservations in Teachers’ Cadre) Ordinance, 2019, providing for reservation of posts in appointments by direct recruitment of persons belonging to the S.Cs, the S.Ts and Socially and Educationally Backward Classes(SEBCs) to teachers’ cadre in certain CEIs.

Higher Education Funding Agency

In May 2017, the government set up a Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) under the Companies Act, 2013. This was to “leverage funds from market to finance improvement in infrastructure in top institutions of education”. The financing of HEFA was to be done through loans from funds raised through market borrowing, with the government only taking care of the interest component. Any higher educational institution availing itself of such a loan would have to repay the principal amount out of its internally generated funds. It was later clarified that the government would fund up to 90 per cent of the repayment of the principal amount but only in case of approved loans. What used to come to universities as grants for infrastructure was now converted into a repayable loan where 10 per cent still had to be returned. The government floated the Institutions of Eminence scheme which promised special grants of Rs.1,000 crore to selected public institutions.

Reinstating detention

In July 2018, the Lok Sabha passed the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (Second Amendment) Act, 2017, effectively abolishing the “no-detention” policy in schools. Under the existing provision, no student can be held back till Class 8 and had to be promoted to the next grade with the idea that learning rather than the fear of examination should be the underlying principle of education. The no-detention policy was introduced to discourage children from dropping out of schools. Under the Act, regular examinations would now be a feature in Classes 5 and 8, and students who failed would be given a chance for re-examination within two months. But if the student failed again, she or he could be detained in the same class. Replying to a debate in Parliament, Human Resouce Development Minister Prakash Javadekar justified the amendment on the grounds that it would bring “accountability to the elementary education system”. He pointed out that schools had become “only schools for the mid-day meal” and that “education and learning was missing”.

Saffronisation of education

Talking of learning, well, a lot of unlearning has had to be done by history students in schools and colleges as the government has sought to leave its own imprint on the subject.

From trying to refashion the Indus Valley Civilisation as the Indus-Saraswati civilisation with the focus on the mythical Saraswati river to efforts to project Maharana Pratap as the victor of the famous Battle of Haldighati, and call Akbar a foreigner, Tipu Sultan a traitor, or the Taj Mahal a Siva temple, the attempts to fiddle with history are numerous.

Says the historian Rizwan Qaisar of Jamia Millia Islamia: “They want to touch history for psychological and political reasons. They suffer from a psychological defeat mentality about how Muslims could rule India for a long time. I have argued from public platforms that Hindus were partners in government at that time. But the BJP has only one vision of society. It wants to apply it retrospectively to history too. The Hindutva people want to win a psychological war with the past by refashioning history.”

Some of the attempts to mix myth and history have been outrageous. A few BJP leaders even claimed that India was conversant with the Internet during the age of the Mahabharata, and the first scribes were born then. Sita, the wife of Lord Ram, was claimed to be actually a test tube baby.

Citing the stories of Karna and Ganesha, the Prime Minister himself claimed that genetic engineering and plastic surgery were practised in ancient India. His statements were not aimed at scientists, but at historians. The idea was to project India’s mythical golden age.

The historian D.N. Jha has rubbished such attempts, saying, “India never had a golden age.” In an interview with Frontline in June 2018, he said, “A scientific analysis of our sources amply proves that at no stage in history the common people of India witnessed a truly golden age. The history of India, like that of any other country, has been a story of social inequities, exploitation of the common people, religious conflict, and so on.”

K.M. Shrimali, another historian, puts it in perspective when he says, “This entire vision of Indian history has no space for reason. They just believe in these things, and they become issues of faith for them, and hence beyond the realm of debate. They are the people who believe myth is history. They do not make a distinction between the two.”

The proposal to rename the Indus Valley Civilisation as the Sarasvati Indus Civilisation came following the claim by the Haryana Saraswati Heritage Development Board, headed by the State’s Chief Minister, that there were nearly a thousand sites of the Indus era in Haryana as against just a hundred or so around Harappa and Mohenjo–Daro (in Pakistan). To buttress its contention, the government ordered an excavation at Kunal in Fatehabad. The move failed to find favour with historians, with Irfan Habib calling it “an exercise at fiction” and Jha saying it was “an old BJP slogan based on politics, history”.

Qaiser calls such research “a wasteful expenditure”. He adds: “Somebody should say, ‘Forget Sarasvati which is lost, what about the Ganga? Is it any less important? Every day we read about the damage done to the Ganga and the Yamuna. They are not paying attention to what is surviving. A river that has gone with the geographical evolutionary forces is the focus of their attention. Bizarre. Even if they have to give primacy to the Hindu culture, there are better ways [to do so].”

In the timeline of saffron forces, the age of plenty, peace and prosperity of the ancient age is followed by the medieval age of barbarians and bloodthirsty kings. From Alauddin Khalji of the Delhi Sultanate to the Mughal kings Akbar and Aurangzeb, all are dubbed foreigners, invaders or bigots. In a distorted version of history, Akbar was even said to have lost the famous Battle of Haldighati with the Rana of Mewar, Maharana Pratap. In a period movie, Khalji’s market reforms which had far-reaching effects were ignored and he was projected as a bloodthirsty tyrant.

That beyond naked prejudice, the Hindutva brigade had no moorings in history became clear when BJP leader Sangeet Som called the Taj Mahal the work of a “traitor” and said that “Shah Jahan was a man who had imprisoned his father”. One who holds prime place in the Hindutva brigade’s version of modern Indian history is V.D. Savarkar, surpassing even Jawaharlal Nehru or Subhas Chandra Bose. No mention is ever made of Nathuram Godse’s role in Gandhi’s assassination or of Savarkar’s possible link with it.

The textbooks of Classes 9 and 10 in Rajasthan has glowing descriptions of the alleged contribution of Savarkar, and Hindutva leaders Deendayal Upadhyaya, M.S. Golwalkar and K.B. Hedgewar. In an attempt to impart a retrospective halo around Savarkar, the books hail him as a great revolutionary whose “lifelong sacrifices for the country’s Independence (are) beyond words”. What is wilfully suppressed is his grovelling apologies to the British from the jail in Andamans and his promise to work for the perpetuation of the British rule.

Similarly, Deendayal Upadhyay’s integral humanism is put on a par with the philosophy of the Mahatma. It leads Qaiser to quip: “If they want to serve his cause, they should probe his death. Who murdered him, and why?”

Even subaltern history is sought to be altered and viewed through the saffron lens. Earlier this year, chapters on class and caste struggle were deleted from the history books brought out by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). Says Qaiser, “Saffronisaiton has been a consistent right-wing ideological assault on education. It is not always a direct attack, but it amounts to the same. For instance, the dropping of chapters on caste and class struggle from the Class 9 history books. They are trying to sweep under the carpet the uncomfortable truth of caste hierarchy and its inherent exploitation of the poor, the so-called low born, the perenially deprived.”

In these times, dark and desultory, Hemu, not Tipu, is projected as a hero, Ranapratap, not Akbar, is shown as the winner. No wonder, BJP leader Mahesh Sharma even had the audacity to say that former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam “was a nationalist despite being a Muslim”. Clearly, in the saffron mindset, there is only one way of being an Indian. “They are trying to raise the height of some really small people by putting them on a pedestal. It does not work,” says Qaiser.

The BJP’s manifesto in 2014 promised “equality of opportunity—equality in access and success” to all learners, including increasing public spending on education to 6 per cent of the GDP. But its policies action show it has no intention of honouring the promises it made. The 2019 manifesto is expected to be no different.

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